Comics fans know Marc Guggenheim as the guy that killed off Bart Allen for DC Comics and the guy currently co-spinning the near-weekly “Amazing Spider-Man” for Marvel, but he’s also the creator showrunner for ABC’s critical darling “Eli Stone,” which begins its second season on October 14.
The show focuses on big time lawyer Eli Stone, who began to experience strange visions. They came in many forms, from biplanes to Broadway-inspired musical numbers to, most notably, George Michael. After being examined by doctors, Eli was told that a brain aneurysm was causing his hallucinations, yet many of Stone’s visions ended up becoming true and manifesting themselves in his daily life with alarming poignancy. Consequently, Eli began questioning his place in life. Was he a modern day prophet? Or just a crazy person?
Then Eli had a vision of the Golden Gate Bridge collapsing in an earthquake. He warned as many people as possible, most of whom didn’t believe him. But then the earthquake happened. Still unsure of himself, Eli decided to have the aneurysm removed, resulting in a temporary coma.
Many questions remain. Was the aneurysm removed successfully? Will the visions continue? What will the public think now that they know about Eli?
Marc Guggenheim stopped by REFLECTIONS to talk about all that and more.
CBR: Looking back, how do you feel about the 13-episode first season of “Eli Stone?”
Marc Guggenheim: I’m really proud of it. I feel like we started to hit our groove around episode nine -- which is pretty typical for a new show. However, with most show’s first seasons, you have 22 episodes, so you hit your groove around episode nine and then are rocking and rolling through episode 22. In the case of “Eli Stone,” however, we started grooving on episode nine and then had to end on episode 13.
By that point, we’d basically settled on a really good voice for the show, and I’m very proud of that. I’m happy with the way it all came together, because it is a very ambitious show, not just from a writing and acting perspective, but from a production perspective. We have musical numbers and visual effects—there are a lot of horses to ride herd on for the show.
I feel like what the show does best is that it makes you feel something. You can feel sadness and laughter in the same episode and that’s the mix we really nailed by the end of our first season.
Let’s talk about the uphill battle to get “Eli Stone” renewed for a second season.
It was a bit hairy at the end. The phrase that the network and the press use is “on the bubble,” and we were definitely there. Right on that proverbial bubble. We heard fairly early on that the network was very happy with the way the show was progressing from a creative standpoint, and we heard that there was a great desire to bring it back. Networks get a lot of criticism, in many instances correctly, for being too quick to cancel shows, particularly shows like “Eli Stone,” but this was an example of the exact opposite. ABC showed a lot of faith in the show, no pun intended, and even though it wasn’t a huge ratings hit, they brought it back for a second season anyway.
If you had known that “Eli stone” was going to be renewed before shooting the final episode, would you have ended the season differently?
No. The end of the first season was exactly what we had planned. You see, between when you film a pilot and eventually go to series, you have to write a “format,” which is a written sales pitch saying what you are going to do if the pilot goes into series. From the beginning, we had said that at the end of the first season, Eli was going to go in and get the aneurysm removed. So that’s what we did at the end of the first season. It helped that we wrote it in such a way that it could work as both a season and series finale. Fortunately, it wasn’t a series finale.
How has season two been coming along?
As I’m sitting here, we are in production of episode six, we are writing episode eight and just got the story approved for episode nine, so we are pretty deep into the season.
Do you have a 13-episode commitment or a 22-episode commitment for the year?
We have 13 with the possibility of 22. Obviously our hope is to get 22.
Basically, this has been a really exciting season for us. We come into it with a lot of momentum and questions. Is Eli alive? If he is alive, is he suffering any longterm consequences from the surgery? Is the aneurysm really out? If it is, is he still having visions?
When we got the pickup, our first task, after we reconvened the writing staff, was figuring out how we were going to answer all these questions. As I said, it was always our plan to have the aneurysm removed, but we came up with a different resolution to the cliffhanger when we were developing season two. You’ll see that resolution in the season premiere.
The season premiere, like any good season premiere, knocks over that first domino. All the events of episode one -- and there are a lot of events -- have consequences that will reverberate through the rest of the season, and not just for Eli but for the rest of the characters as well.
If last season was an internal struggle for Eli over whether what was happening with him was real, this season is very much about the fact that it is really happening and examining the consequences. We are leading to a major shakeup for the law firm, major developments for Matt and Taylor’s relationship, a major development in Maggie and Eli’s flirtation, etc. If you’ll remember at the end of episode 12, we met Maggie’s fiancï¿½e, and now we will learn how Eli feels about him.
Let's get this straight—you are answering questions in the first episode? Good God, haven’t you been watching “Lost?”
[laughs] I think that one of the reasons people responded to the latter half of the episodes last year was that we adopted an accelerated way of telling story. We didn’t keep out powder dry and figure we would keep things secret until season three. We got into the habit of exploding things early on and providing answers early on, burning through a lot of story in the process.
An epiphany I had while doing “The Flash: The Fastest Man Alive” was that because I knew Bart was going to die at the end of the fifth issue, I could blow up a lot of stuff in issues one through four. What I took from that is the individual issues are far more compelling, and it would have been interesting to write as if every issue was your last. What if you approached a TV show as if every episode was your last?
Here’s a specific example in season two. When we were talking about the season over all, my partner Greg Berlanti suggested something about the law firm that we were going to build to and end the season with. We loved it so much that we decided not to delay gratification and just have it happen at the beginning of the season. We are very adrenalized in our storytelling approach, and I think it helps the series.
Are there any main cast additions or subtractions this season?
No, everyone is back. The only thing I would point out is that not only is our regular cast back, but we are also bringing back Katey Sagal, Tom Amandes and Laura Benanti.
Laura Benanti won a Tony award for Best Supporting Actress in "Gypsy." Is she singing in this season of "Eli Stone?"
Let me put it this way, I am not bringing her back after she won a Tony award just to have her not sing. It is simply a crime against humanity that she did not sing last year.
Let’s talk guest stars.
Sigourney Weaver is here today, and we are really excited to have her. I’ve only spoken to her on the phone and I’m going to meet her today at 12 my time.
Are you nervous?
A little nervous. [laughs] I don’t want to sound like an idiot. She’s been lovely on the phone, so there is nothing intimidating about her. If I put my foot in my mouth, I’ll only have myself to blame.
We’ve also got Katie Holmes in episode two, and she is absolutely phenomenal. We’ve got Seal coming on the show in episode seven.
Is he taking over for George Michael this season or is George Michael going to still play a huge role in show’s mythos?
Seal’s role on the show is completely different than what George Michael’s role was. I think it would be an insult to both of them to replace one superstar with another, so we tried to give him something new and different to do.
Let’s talk about Jordan, played by Victor Garber. If any character, other than Eli, went through a full-circle journey, it was him. What are you going to do with him this year?
I was talking to Victor the other day and he commented that he had so much more to do this year, and he really does. Something happens to him in the season premier that will profoundly change him and kick off a series of events that will reverberate through the rest of the season.
Jordan came full circle last year and this year we deal with consequences. He was a fervent believer in Eli, and now that he has this new understanding, what will he do about it, and how will it affect the law firm and his relationship with Eli? We are peeling the onion with his character.
It’s magic when Jonny Lee Miller and Victor share the screen, and we were trying to create stories where they do that. In episode three, you’ll see the first knock-down, drag out fight between the two characters. It’s very much that big story type of thing that makes the series hum.
Last year, Eli said a bridge was going to fall down, and then a bridge fell down. Where does he go from there?
It’s dealt with in the season premiere. And if you look carefully in the opening shot of the second episode, you’ll see scaffolding on the bridge. One of the things we are exploring this year is the question of how many people know about his powers and how they react to that. Eli had to seek out his cases because of a vision, but because his public profile is bigger, a lot of cases come to his door. He’s also going to question his calling, since a lot of prophets didn’t just carry out God’s instructions, they had a dialogue with God and questioned Him sometimes.
We are also introducing a major new piece into the mythology of the show that deals with Eli’s dad, and that leads to a big mystery. It’s our “hatch” for the year, if you don’t mind the “Lost” reference.
Are Patti and Martin going to have more interplay this year?
I love that interplay, and they will definitely have more of that. That core relationship is one of my favorite things about the show.
Let’s talk about this year’s musical numbers.
In episode one, we have our biggest musical number ever. We did it outdoors with fifty extras in the backlot of Paramount studios. In episode two, Katie Holmes does a fantastic musical number that may be the best we’ve ever done. She can sing and can dance, and when you watch it you’ll go “Wow, I did not know she was able to do this!” This is a whole different level of singing from her “Dawson’s Creek” days. I really hope that when the media covers the episode, they’ll take note that she is actually singing. It’s a virtuoso performance.
You're on Tuesday's at 10 o'clock following "Dancing With The Stars."
How do you feel about the timeslot this year?
I feel good about it. I think “Dancing With the Stars” is a more compatible lead-in than “Lost.” You watch “Lost” and then I’m not sure you’ll want to watch any more TV; it’s not a show that is conducive to the viewer thinking, “Okay, now I’m going to sit back and watch this legal drama with musical numbers!” Tonally, I think “Dancing” is a much more compatible lead-in.
"Eli Stone" has earned an enormous amount of support in the press.
The amount of press we have gotten is pretty remarkable. I think it has to do with the guest stars coming on to the show. Every other week we are announcing somebody new, so I think that will help, too.
I don’t put a whole lot of thought into the pre-launch stuff; it’s my job to help write and produce the best show I can, and at the end of the day I hope people find it.
Let’s end with a question about your personal journey. You wrote the show on spec for ABC, you got to finish a full season just before the writer’s strike, you were a bubble show and got renewed and now you have a lot of buzz going into season two. How does all of this make you feel about your own personal journey?
I have to say that the most gratifying thing in my career has been watching people discover the show. When the show premiered, I was all over the Internet looking to see what people said. I got to see a remarkable turn, because when it premier the reaction was very mixed.
There were people who loved it, which is great, but there were also people who thought it was “Ally McBeal” with a male lead. Then, as each week passed, I noticed that people were slowly beginning to get the show. By episode 13, I didn’t read anything negative. If you go on iTunes and read the reviews in reverse chronological order, you have to go very far down to get a negative review. It took time for viewers to discover and process, which is fine because it took the show nine episodes to discover itself.
It’s been an interesting journey, and the best part was watching everyone slowly come to love the show. That is better than if they show would have premiered to uniformly rave reviews and everyone loving the show.
As with life, it’s not the destination but the journey, and the journey always keeps me interested.